We have reached the end game of have-it-all culture. Because I'm Worth It has had its day, and discipline is the new decadence. The Nike Fuel Band, which tracks your calorie expenditure and praises you for an active lifestyle, has more smug-factor than a Rolex right now. The dominant meme of annoying Facebook behaviour has segued from the posting of party photos to "inspirational" quotes (American men – Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson – are especially hot right now). Meanwhile, the narrative of reality TV has changed: bad behaviour in the hot tub, à la early Big Brother, has been replaced, from The Voice to The Apprentice, by Saturday-night preaching of the age-old Sunday-morning mantras that hard work will be rewarded, that mentors must be respected and listened to. Even family life has taken on a new set of values. With every issue of Goop, the cosy, cupcake-baking ideal of motherhood cedes territory to the Tiger Mothers (whose children will be more successful than yours) and the Gwyneth Paltrow-esque mothers (whose children will be slimmer and healthier, ergo more successful, than yours.)
We will always desire that element which is elusive in our culture – and right now, that element is discipline. Five months ago Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, gave a speech in which he noted the drawbacks of a culture of instant access to information and of the infinite flexibility of schedule made possible by a world in which everyone is instantly contactable. Discipline, he said, was missing in this setup, and this was a handicap in some areas of achievement. "Collaboration and sharing are not good for finishing your organic chemistry problem set," he said. Patience, strategic thinking and deference to authority, he added, are things "that do not come naturally to" those who have grown up in an online culture.
The Net-A-Porter online fashion website, most of whose customers surely walk past several Starbucks outlets on their way to work, is currently hosting an online video in which the Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr demonstrates how she makes her green "breakfast smoothie" out of a nine-ingredient list that includes coconut water, goji berries, spirulina and acai powder. Extreme diet plans – from the 5:2 intermittent fasting plan to juice-only days (Coleen Rooney tweeted recently about the "great results" of a three-day juice fast she undertook a month after having her second son) – have reinvigorated the dreary business of weight loss, turning your self-discipline into a potential cocktail-party turn. (No one wants to hear how many WeightWatchers points are in your lunchtime sandwich, but if you've found a formula to stick to 500 calories a day you'll hold the floor.)
The ascent of the age of discipline is changing the mood music in every aspect of our culture. It is the reason why skivers-and-strivers hit a nerve, and why David Cameron is rightly terrified of the "chillax" tag. Richard Benson, editor of the Middle Class Handbook blog, attributes the shift to "the tremendous increase in workloads and competitiveness that has occurred over the past decade, due in part to the influence of Americanised corporate culture and in part to the current recession. All recessions seem to have a dominant, lasting cultural impact: in the early 80s it was the loss of the old industrial community, in the early 90s it was the loss of the job for life. This time, it feels like the impact may be the acceptance of previously unthinkable workloads and working hours. Many people say they are still earning the same salary but having to work much harder for it, which perhaps explains some of the focus on discipline. And there is a certain disenchantment with the non-judgmental, diverse, emotionally literate approach that pre-dated this, for various reasons: it seems to dodge tough decisions, it is often disingenuous, it leads to awful corporate teambuilding exercises. And so that disenchantment leads to a counter-reaction, which is an appreciation of old-fashioned, no-nonsense school-marmishness."
Lorraine Candy, editor-in-chief of Elle, says that discipline "makes us feel more in control of our lives in a time when the recession defines us and how we live. The Elle reader [average age: 28] is more thoughtful about her way of life and her purchases because her future may not be as rosy as the generation before. Discipline is part of her mindset now."
In the age of discipline, watercooler gossip has taken a pious turn. Showing off about how drunk you were last night has been superseded by showing off about how many nights since you last drank. When I was first doing working lunches, 15 years ago, a glass of wine was perfectly normal; such a thing is unheard of now. And at evening events in the fashion industry, the meaning of the hand over the wineglass has gone from "I'm pregnant" (2005) to "I've got a job interview/meeting with the boss tomorrow" (2010) to "Can't afford to look unprofessional in this economic climate" (2013). Among Candy's readers, "sharing a great film, band or book is much more of a social currency on Facebook than saying how much they drank. That isn't the driver for an evening out any more." Conversely, as Benson notes, "it has become far more acceptable to boast about going to the gym or running. The posting of one's runs to Facebook is increasingly becoming a pressing issue of etiquette."
Earlier this month, a major American health magazine ran an article entitled "10 Signs You May Have OCD". It was a straightforward, well-meaning article attempting to tease apart character traits that mean you are more than usually careful or organised from those that suggest OCD. (Double-checking you turned the oven off is fine, but having to check exactly three times before you leave the house is a warning sign.) What was striking about the article, however, was the visuals that accompanied it. The front page was illustrated by an expensive-looking wooden rail on which hung a handsome row of shirts, pleasingly colour-coordinated so that mid-blue segued into pale duck egg, through a cream check and into lemon. On the next page was an action closeup of a handwash, with elegant French manicured nails gleaming in the suds.
When did OCD get glamorous? Only a few years ago, the layperson's description for someone who straightened paperclips and laminated everything was "being anal". It was an ugly description, with nothing remotely admiring about it. But perfectionism has rebranded itself, from being just a bit uncool to being "a Type-A personality" (essentially a way of saying "I'm Alpha, you're Beta" while hiding behind psychological terminology) or "a bit OCD" – a phrase used these days as a kind of faux self-deprecating compliment. ("Don't worry, it's fine you're late, it gave me a chance to clear my inbox. Me, I'm totally OCD about punctuality. I wish I could be more laidback, like you!")
Benson reports having had "younger bloggers who want to write for us suggesting blogs about being OCD and proud. Connected to this is the barely concealed boast that one is geeky or nerdy about certain things; it is no longer enough to merely like something, is it?" This new rosy tint to a work-obsessed, office-neat personality is starting to affect the way our homes look. Interiors magazines are abandoning the country house and seaside cottage ideals in favour of a more industrial aesthetic. Shabby-chic chandeliers have been replaced by light fixtures that celebrate the bare bulb, and foxed mirrors over mantelpieces taken down in favour of utilitarian or abstract light-up signs – "LIVE" in neon, say, or "LUNCHEONETTE" in retro fairground bulbs.
Gwyneth Paltrow is the poster girl for the age of discipline. Paltrow has a higher profile now, when she makes only one film a year, than she did when she was wowing Hollywood and winning Oscars, by virtue of being a pioneer for a disciplined lifestyle. It began with fitness, and the hardcore transformation of her body through what she freely admitted was a gruelling exercise and diet programme. What was new wasn't the regime, it was that Paltrow championed it rather than disguised it. Before Paltrow, most actresses and models toed the party line ("eat what I want/fast metabolism"). Since Paltrow, it has become de rigueur to own up to the effort. "When I interview supermodels today they explain how their bodies have been 'made' with exercise and good diet, especially the Victoria's Secret 'Angels'," says Candy. "It is rare to meet one who says she can eat anything she wants and never goes to the gym." The Paltrow brand has since extended into family life. The Paltrow-Martins maintain a strict abstention from goofy shows of public affection, only allow their children to watch cartoons in foreign languages, and exclude most carbohydrates from the family kitchen. Paltrow has become a compelling Marmite figure in popular culture, partly because we project on to her character the negative traits we associate with discipline (being dull company, not having sex) as well as the positive ones.
If Paltrow is the poster girl, the Tiger Mother is the bogey monster. The Tiger Mother, drilling times tables at the changing table and fiercely guarding the name of the best Mandarin tutor in town, is in reality a numerically tiny phenomenon. Nonetheless, a generation of parents lie awake at night cold-sweating over whether that extra half hour on the Xbox has seriously damaged their eight-year-old's future chances. If Keep Calm And Carry On grew from a notion that a return to old-fashioned British values was called for, the new age of discipline stems from the worry that a stiff upper lip alone is not enough to save us. It is no coincidence that the concept of the Tiger Mother took off at the very moment the name, with its Chinese assocations, was coined. Beneath the hysteria is a very real fear. As Benson puts it, "it's probably a reasonable reaction to think: China is going to eat us and our economy alive, if we don't find a way to compete with them."
• This article was amended on 27 June 2013 to correct a towed/toed homophone.